The semester is almost up, and mine’s been a good one. Admittedly, that’s mostly because it’s my last. That’s right, I’m graduating! I only had three classes left to take this semester, so it was a very easy one. One of my classes this semester focused on Software Engineering. As a learning exercise, the class was organized into a company and worked on an ongoing project started two or three semesters ago. That project is called the Twenty Minute Genealogist. It’s purpose is to make it possible to get meaningful genealogy work done in just 20 minutes a week. The project is still in its infancy and a working version isn’t yet available, but the demo is very promising and the feature set very compelling. If you’re into genealogy work and want to see better tools available for the task, check out http://twentygen.cs.byu.edu/ and take a look at the Twenty Minute Genealogist.
It’s been some time since I’ve written an update on me. Me last post was back in April, and for some time all I wrote about was ethics and computers. So it’s about time I wrote something for personal.
I spent this summer working at Google in Irvine. The Irvine office was created a few years ago when Google bought a company called DMarc, which specialized in automated radio management and ad insertion. Google bought the company to get into the audio ads business, and has been doing decently. Most of the office still works in various areas of the radio space, although a significant portion has moved to TV ads and various reporting areas as well.
I worked on the team that runs the auction software that decides what ads get played when. I built a couple of reporting dashboards that gave visibility into the auction process. It was a great experience that convinced me that I really want to pursue a career as a software engineer.
At the end of the summer I interviewed for conversion to full-time. It took some time to get through the process, particularly with the economic troubles and hiring slows, but eventually I was extended an offer for a position in Test out in Boulder, CO. That means that my job will be to write automated test suites and generally work on quality control software. I’m really excited to start working. But first I have to get through school =P.
Copyright law has been around a long time. The basis for copyright is found in the constitutional injunction for the government to promote advances in the sciences and art. In the ‘classical’ (pre-computer) era, copyright was fairly straightforward: the creator of a work had the right to control reproduction of that work. The creator does not, however, control access to copies of his or her work. For example, the author of a book has the right to control publication and copying of that book. However, he or she does not have the right to restrict me from lending a copy of the book to a friend, or checking the book out from a library. In the digital age, things are different. Viewing data on a computer requires copying that data. The data resides primarily on a hard disk somewhere. When you access it through the internet, a copy is made to send over the wires to your computer, which caches the information into a local copy. Another copy is then made by the application that displays the data so that it can put it on the screen. From one viewing, several copies are made. Current copyright law is not equipped to handle this fundamental nature of digital works. Awareness must be raised and politicians must be educated so that we can protect the rights of the creator of a work without denying the public access to that work.
Let’s face it: the internet is invading our lives. It’s become a part of almost every computing device and even some MP3 players. I get on the internet at least once every day, and many times on most days. It’s how many of us organize our calendars, keep in touch with others, find answers to questions, and pass our spare time. The internet is an amazing tool for all this and more, but it has dangers, too. The news is replete with stories of internet predators. The internet is also full of unwanted content, much of it maliciously trying to capture our attention or our private data. Because of this ‘internet invasion’ we all need to be aware of the dangers and the possible defenses available to us.
There are many available protections against internet invasion. The most important defense is self control. Don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on the net; don’t go surfing in chat rooms; don’t view malicious content if it does pop up on your screen. To help in this endeavor, there are also content filters and good practices, like keeping the family computer in a public room (instead of the bedroom). Rather than attempt to list all the available tools, let me direct you to a useful resource, the Internet Safety Podcast (and wiki). There you’ll find an introduction to internet safety topics and technologies, as well as ideas and instructions on how to make the most of them.
The term “open source” was invented by the Linux community in 1998, and was created to separate it from Richard Stallman’s “free software”. “Open source” means that the source code of a project is openly available and can be used with few restrictions. “Free software” follows a similar, yet subtilely different, ideology. Free software is essentially an activist movement against proprietary software. Stallman believes that all software should be free (as in “free speech”, not “free food”), and uses the Free Software Foundation (FSF) as a way to promote that ideal. The Open Source Initiative (OSI), however, understands the need and use for proprietary software, and even supports the use of open source projects and ideals in proprietary software.
The OSI has the much more defensible position. We live in a capitalist society. At some level, nothing will get done if there’s no money in it. There are many people who write software for the sake of writing software, but they are few in comparison to the market need for good software. That need is filled by capitalist corporations, who produce software to sell it to people. These companies can make good use of open source software, adding their own special value add to what is already available to make a viable product that they can sell. The FSF misunderstands the need for proprietary software. Without the ability to sell software, most software would never get made.
I’ve been reading an interesting book by Thomas Friedman called The World Is Flat. In his book, Friedman discusses the forces that have been and are flattening the world, and how to survive in an America where so many jobs are being outsourced. The flattening of the world began with the liberation of Eastern Europe from stifling soviet politics and economics. Other countries also entered the world economy, and many factory jobs moved offshore. Then came the PC, the internet, work flow software, and things just took off from there. Suddenly, jobs that could not be outsourced before (IT, HR, R&D, and other knowledge-based jobs) could be split up and sent to different parts of the globe. Some jobs can never be outsourced, because they have to be done in a certain location, but at times, it seems like no job is safe. Indeed many analysts say that the only way to protect American jobs is to impose tariffs and other taxes on internationally produced solutions. Friedman argues instead that the flattening of the world is good for Americans, but we’ll need to learn some new skills to thrive in the new world.
The most important skill we need is to be adaptable. Almost all of us, at one time or another, will find that our current job is being replaced by a computer or by somebody in Asia. When that happens, the only way to survive is to have developed new skills in a different (but perhaps often related) area. For example, when a tech support job is sent to India, the old American tech support guy had better have another way of making himself valuable. It could be that he’s learned enough from supporting a system to be able to maintain or improve it. Or perhaps he’s done some studying on the side and has developed the skills to write documentation and manuals. Whatever it is, it had better be something, because he’s no longer profitable as tech support.
To constantly be adapting her skill set to fill new jobs, the most important thing an American middle-class worker can do is constantly learn. She needs to develop a love of learning, a passion for what she does, and a curiosity about everything else. That way she will be constantly redefining herself, developing new specialties in fields that aren’t being outsourced. When the job she currently does gets automated or moved, she has something new to do.
This constant redefining may seem scary or difficult, but I think it’s exciting. I suppose it’s my love of learning new things that makes me excited to have to do it. I can never be satisfied with doing the same job the rest of my life. I’m glad that someday the job I’m doing will either become obsolete or be moved to somebody else. That leaves me free to expand, to improve myself, and to do just about whatever interests me. It keeps my life fresh and exciting. Globalization and the flattening of the world will bring (or rather, is bringing) amazing opportunities to Americans who are ready and willing to take full advantage of it.
Google is currently sponsoring a competition called Google Lunar X PRIZE, a race to the moon. Google will award $30 million the first team to safely land a remote-controlled robot, that can send images and data back to Earth, on the moon. Among the many competitors, Team FREDNET is unique: it is the only 100% open source competitor. What that means is that essentially anybody can join and/or contribute to the project. In an interview on NPR, Fred Bourgeois, one of the primary leaders, said that they have contributors from a dozen countries and of all ages, including a middle-schooler. This is an amazing achievement in global collaboration, and is strong evidence of how flat our world has become. 10 years ago, this team effort would have been impossible. Now it is impressive only because of its goal. The open source community has long since expanded to include the whole world. Developers from Asia to Africa contribute regularly to project such as GNU and Apache. But an open source approach to an international competition is a new idea. It’s a great step forward for globalization and will hopefully lead to increased international collaboration on other important projects.
We’re all familiar with Title IX. We see its effects in school sports programs. What we don’t often realize is how wide-ranging Title IX really is. Its scope includes all educational and government organizations. That includes mathematics, physics, computer science, engineering, etc. While sports programs have come a long way towards equal numbers of male and female participants, engineering (especially computing) is still predominantly male. There are many people who see the vast disparity between the numbers of men and women graduating in computing and assume that means discrimination. What such people don’t realize is that there are other possible causes. I know very few females actually interested in computing. Now, don’t misunderstand: discrimination is a serious problem and needs to be stopped. But what we often call discrimination is simply a manifestation of the fact that different people have different interests. There isn’t much interest among women for playing football, for example. I’m sure there are women who enjoy the sport, but not nearly enough to create women’s football teams in our schools. Efforts at enforcing Title IX are misguided. Instead of assuming that ‘unequal numbers’ equals ‘discrimination’ we need to look fro the real causes of the inequality and seek to correct any causes that are caused by social or organizational discrimination, while understanding and accounting for the others.
CNet News.com did a story this week on online chess playing. This is yet another form of social networking, and an interesting one. Other networking sites, like FaceBook, are places where anybody can upload anything. Niche social networking sites, like Chess.com, on the other hand, are structured. This leads to fewer members, but also tends to generate more excitement from those who participate. Social networking in any form is still very popular. Chess.com gained 120,000 user in its first 8 months. Social networking fills a need in people’s lives. Human beings are social animals. The advent of technology in a way separates people from each other. Most everyone you see in public is either listening to an iPod or talking on a cell phone, completely oblivious to the work around them. Even in professional life people are more isolated than ever before: each working on their own computer and communicating with each other largely through memos and email. Social networking sites help such people feel a part of a community. They also allow people to extend that community to anywhere in the world, forming communities not of location, but of interest. Social networking sites will continue to flourish. Any product that helps bring people together in new ways is likely to go far.
Internet security, and network security in general, is becoming increasingly important. As more and more information is stored and accessed via networks, and more and more devices become network enabled (and dependent), the realm of internet security becomes more broadly applicable. It also becomes more of a target for malicious activity. We need to be more aware of the dangers, and more familiar with the security measures available to protect us.
The internet is built on a system of trust. I trust that the content I want will be provided in a way that I can access and understand it. You, the content provider, trust that I won’t take advantage of you for providing that content. We both trust that our ISPs will respect our right to communicate with each other privately, and so forth. The problem with a system of trust is that it can often be easy to violate. A malicious hacker takes advantage of my trust by providing what appears to be valid content, but turns out to be something invasive or destructive. He violates your trust by pretending to be an average visitor to your site, then uses his connection to your server to forward his own schemes. When trust is violated, it is harder to trust again.
An attacker could be almost anyone. Many hackers are young people who find it exhilarating to make something that spreads and infects other computers. Others are trying to steal your personal information so they can make money off you. Still others are interested in spreading chaos and panic, for personal enjoyment or perhaps profit. They employ various tricks to scope out your network, observe your activity, record sensitive information, and shut you down.
Internet security devices–such as firewalls, antivirus software, spyware removal utilities, and others–help to maintain and restore our trust because these devices help secure us against those who would abuse that trust. However, these devices are only as useful as we let them be. Antivirus software only protects the person who uses it regularly to scan his system. A firewall can only protect the devices behind it. We therefore must learn how to use these devices, and not only learn, but do.
Even more important than security devices is simple common sense. Just as you shouldn’t leave copies of the keys to your house and car lying around, so also you should take care with your passwords and other sensitive digital information. Choose passwords that are difficult to guess: that aren’t in the dictionary; use numbers, letters, and special characters; and are changed regularly and uniquely. Be sure that you have a secure connection to an internet site before providing a password. Password protect your computer login, and encrypt any sensitive information with another password. Following these guidelines makes it harder for somebody else to gain access to your data without your permission.
By securing ourselves against internet attacks, we preserve the trust-based nature of the internet. We depend on that trust to do our work and have our fun. As long as that trust still stands, the internet will flourish as a medium for communication and collaboration. If that trust is lost, we stand to lose much of the advances the digital revolution has brought us.